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Sexual Assault Reporting: Post-Lara Logan, Business As Usual - The LAMP

Sexual Assault Reporting: Post-Lara Logan, Business As Usual

By March 9, 2011 News One Comment

Lara Logan

After CBS News revealed that one of its reporters, Lara Logan, had been sexually assaulted while covering news in Egypt, the media response to the incident gained almost as much attention as the incident itself. Various pieces ran the unfortunate but typical range of claims that she was asking for it, it’s her fault because she put herself in harm’s way, etc. There was a fair degree of outcry against the blame-the-victim reporting, with the implication that media should avoid this in the future. (Full disclosure: I myself was sexually abused as a child, now over twenty years ago.)With this acknowledgment, there was a glimmer of hope, albeit a thin one, that media may change. And so I was furious when I read a story in the New York Times by James C. McKinley Jr. about an 11-year-old girl who was gang raped in Texas, and found that we’re back to business as usual.

The basic story is that just after Thanksgiving, police in Cleveland, TX were alerted to a cell phone video which showed a girl being gang raped in a trailer home. 18 men and boys have been rounded up as suspected participants in the rape. The intro to the article is fairly objective, stating known facts, including that some of the suspects have criminal records. But when the article progresses to discussing the impact of the attack on the local community, the first quote comes from a hospital worker who knows some of the suspects, saying, “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

It was at this point that I began to take issue. The boys have to live with this? What about the girl? I fully respect that the suspects have feelings, and frankly whether or not they are convicted, they will most likely move through Cleveland, TX with a scarlet letter just for being implicated in the rape. However, is it really appropriate that the first note of empathy here is for the accused?

The article continues, describing how the incident came to light and providing some other details from the affidavit, and goes on to state that residents in the area had seen the victim in the area (known as the Quarters) for months as she visited friends. The residents added that she dressed inappropriately for an 11-year-old, wore makeup and hung out with teenage boys at the playground. The same hospital worker quoted earlier is quoted again: “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking? How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”

And here we have another variation on blaming the victim, which is blaming the victim’s parents. For one thing, the girl’s mother did not grant permission for a child to be viciously assaulted. We have no background on what was going on in the victim’s private life (which is as it should be; she and her family deserve anonymity). For all we know, the girl was no more supervised at home than she was in the Quarters, and the reasons for that could be any number of possibilities. Within the article, that makes for two quotes working against the victim, and none against the accused beyond statements about how devastated the community is by the attack as a whole.

The article also states that there were not many residents of the Quarters who were willing to go on the record, which can certainly account for the paucity of balance in reporting. The only other person quoted in the article is a spokeswoman for the school district, whose quote does little to add to the story: “It’s devastating, and it’s really tearing out community apart. I really wish that this could end in a better light.” This does nothing more than confirm the title of the story, which is “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town.” (Never mind that in this entire town, only two people were willing to speak, which calls into question the validity of headlining the article as a piece about a community.)

As much as I may take issue with the hospital worker for her point of view, my real issue as far as this article is concerned has to do with the reporting, which in my opinion falls short of responsible. My intent here is not to accuse the Times or the journalists who wrote the story of misogyny, but instead I mean to point out subtle unbalances in reporting cases of violence against women. Media have a long history of covering sexual and domestic assault stories in this way. It is a habit which is unacceptable, but it is nonetheless a habit which must be broken. Whether the story is about a woman like Lara Logan who lives in the public eye, or whether it’s about an anonymous young girl, women–and all other media consumers–deserve better.

–Emily Long
Follow me on Twitter: @emlong